One day my seminary systematic theology professor decided to read a story, rather than to give a lecture. The story was “Revelation,” a posthumously published short story by Flannery O’Connor, in which the protagonist, Mrs. Turpin, waits in a doctors waiting room, sizing up all those around her. On the outside, she’s the model of propriety (for her time and place) but the reader is privy to her private thoughts and they are full of self-congratulations, and judgment for others. At the end of the story (spoiler alert!) She has a revelation of all the people she judged getting into heaven ahead of her.

After reading the story, it’s pretty obvious that Mrs. Turpin is self-righteous and arrogant. It’s easy to deride her for her qualities, but more difficult to self-identify with her failings. She is an abstraction, the personification of what not to be, but in reality, she’s meant to be a cautionary tale to us.

A short time after hearing this story, I was in my local Wal-Mart. While going about my shopping I became aware that my inner dialog reflected the judgment Mrs. Turpin levels against others. “I can’t believe that person would go out in public dressed like that” or “Why can’t that woman control her children” or “If I watched that TV show, I certainly wouldn’t wear a T-Shirt telling the world about it.” It was right then I heard that still small voice of conviction saying, “Et tu Peter?” I realized I was no different than Mrs. Turpin, who herself reflects all the ugliness of the Pharisees in the gospels.

In Matthew 23: 27-28, Jesus says,  “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” This is a pretty fair assessment of Mrs. Turpin, and at that moment, I realized it was a pretty fair assessment of me too.

I never bothered to get to know the people for whom I had so much scorn. They existed as caricatures in my mind, grotesque distortions of people whose identities were defined by all the ways I perceived that they fell short. Of course others could make similar judgments in relations to my shortcomings.

I don’t believe the Holy Spirit points out the faults in our lives in order to make us feel small, but in order to remove an impediment to our faithful service to God. In this case, my own pride and arrogance were keeping me from fruitfully engaging others. In his book Exclusion & Embrace theologian Miroslav Volf discusses how we exclude others by creating boundaries across which we are unwilling to reach and therefore across which we cannot have constructive engagement[1]. The lines I draw between myself and others serves as barrier that makes it impossible for me to love and serve them, in spite of Jesus’ commands that I do so (Matthew 25: 31-46).

I’ve also found that service is a two way street. When I allow myself to follow Jesus’ lead in refusing to let others differentness excuse my exclusion, I realize that not only can I give to such people, but that I can also receive. I came to nightlight to serve people who were less fortunate than I am. In the process, I’ve created friendships with people I never imagined could be my friends, friendships that enrich my own life. It was never God’s intention that I merely serve at nightlight, but also that I would be served, that I would both give and receive friendship. Having these friends is a blessing I could never have received if I had considered myself too high and mighty to associate with people who were different than me. Coming to understand that was quite a revelation indeed.

[1] Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconcilliation. (Nashville: Abingdon 1996) 67.